Ask, Look, Share: Three Lessons from the Ha(i)rry Ransom Center

Heather Hind is a third year PhD student at the universities of Exeter and Bristol. Her thesis is a study of hairwork in Victorian literature and culture with a particular focus on the Brontës, the Brownings, Wilkie Collins, and Margaret Oliphant. She is the book reviews editor for Literature & History and a BAVS PG rep. She tweets @heatherlouhind 

In Autumn last year, I visited the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, as a visiting scholar to undertake research for one of my thesis chapters on the gift of hair in the poetry, letters, and personal effects of the Brownings. It was a wonderful trip, not only for the rich resources the ABL holds, but because of the people I met and who helped me along the way. I learned a lot from my visit (which I blogged about here), not least because I’d never spent so much time on a single research trip or worked so intensely consulting material for one chapter in one place. The nature of my topic—hairwork, or, objects crafted out of human hair such as jewellery and embroideries—means I more often find several of my authors and articles of hairwork (as well as related paraphernalia) scattered between various collections within a museum or library. I have to skip between them, to comb through to find what I need, to try to trace a narrative between odds and ends, which makes the process of research itself a challenge.

After my trip to the ABL, I visited the Harry Ransom Center in Austin for this latter kind of bits-and-bobs-research which, though a brief visit, led to some even more weird and wonderful hair-related finds and lessons learned, which I’d like to share (taking my own advice from point three).

 1) Ask

Before you set off on your library/museum/archive visit, contact the relevant curator or archivist and tell them a little bit about your research and roughly what you’re looking for. It might feel a little forward, especially if you’re in the early stages of your project and don’t know exactly what you want to see, but it is absolutely worth doing. And always ask well in advance, too, so you can plan out and prioritise your research time and confirm the dates you’re going to be visiting (you might need to book space in the reading room, register ahead, or confirm materials are available).

On emailing a curator at the HRC—with my usual cringey “please can I look at any hair you might have” request—I was amazed to receive back a very detailed list of every single item of hair in their collection. This regularly updated, but not to be found online, document lists over 70 locks or articles made of hair including, to name only a few, the locks of Charlottle Brontë, Byron, Edgeworth, Goethe, Keats, Napoleon, Poe, Christina Rossetti, Thackeray, and Marie Antoinette (unfortunately this last one was unavailable due to conservation work – another reason to ask ahead!). The list includes things I wouldn’t easily have found by just searching the catalogue: photographs of hair jewellery, including a fob containing Robert Browning’s hair to add to my list; some civil-war era hair embroidery, apparently made when wool was scarce; and items from personal effects collections such as a ring made of the hair of Joanna Southcott, the self-proclaimed prophet.

Ask tentatively even if you’re not sure. It can sometimes be difficult to gauge if an institution has material for you without insider information. The curators know the quirks of their catalogue system and can guide you through it (or beyond it, in the case of yet to be catalogued material or collections with only physical catalogues). As well as being aided in this way at the HRC, the Gallery of Costume in Manchester was very generous in not only letting me visit while they were closed for conservation work (which I had thought would mean a no—so it was definitely worth the asking), but in giving me access to their hair jewellery drawer (a whole drawer!) and shelf full of jewellery history books, many of which I’d been struggling to get hold of.

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The hair jewellery drawer at the Gallery of Costume

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2) Look

Look at as much as you can that might be in some way relevant to your topic. Of course, if you’re on a strict schedule, prioritise the most highly relevant material, but keep note of the interesting things that pop up in your catalogue searches and discussions with curators as they can lead you down some productive, as opposed to procrastinatory, rabbit holes.

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The frontispiece of How to Arrange the Hair; or, Golden Rules for the Fair Sex (1857). P.d.

For the purposes of keeping firm parameters around my topic, I don’t usually stray into hair dressing or wig making or anything else beyond cut hair used for mementoes and decorative objects. However, I made an exception on my last day at the HRC and, lo and behold, I found some useful material. It’s not material that will be central to my thesis (a charming illustration of a girl having her hair pulled by goblinesque creatures and a lock of dog hair from T. H. White’s journals), but it’s at least footnote worthy.

3) Share

Share your research with others. Whether it’s by tweeting it, messaging friends and family or chatting to someone else at the library, the conversations you have around your research are essential. Having to explain what you’ve found and why it is (or could be) significant can help you to work through your ideas. And, occasionally, the person listening might have something to share with you too. 

tweet

On my second or third day at the HRC I tweeted about some chest hair I’d found in an envelope in the Coleridge Family Collection. It very quickly became my most liked tweet and, more importantly, sparked a thread of replies from people offering their strange hair finds from museums and libraries around the world. I could write a whole host of footnotes just from that tweet. What was the icing on the chest hair, though, was a message from a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin inviting me to come and witness the students from a Jane Austen module she teaches on handing in a very special extra credit assignment. In an ode to Leigh Hunt’s Collection of Hair—an album containing the locks of hair and portraits of famous poets and historical figures, held at the HRC—these students compose their own poems around a lock of their hair and photo and hand them in to be gathered together for a class hair album (something of a module tradition, this year’s being the third album made).

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The students’ hair album at the University of Texas at Austin, with thanks to Prof Janine Barchas and Kathleen Conti for their invitation.

Watching a line of students shuffle forward to have their hair, already composed in plastic wallets, slotted alongside their classmates’ into a ring binder was a surreal way to end my trip to Texas. But it is incredible to reflect back on the chain of events leading up to this point: asking for and getting a list of hair from the HRC; looking at everything, even the chest hair; sharing that find on twitter and, through happenstance, it being seen by the right person in the right place at the right time.

On that note – if you’d like to share your research on this blog, please get in touch.

I’d like to thank the ABL again for hosting me as a visiting scholar, and the South West and Wales DTP for supporting my visit to the HRC.

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